Reinforcement and Punishment: Examples & Overview

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  • 0:01 B.F. Skinner & Operant…
  • 0:57 Reinforcement
  • 2:16 Schedules of Reinforcement
  • 4:27 Punishment
  • 5:13 Extinction
  • 5:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Tiffany Frye
The power of reinforcement and punishment to change behavior was discovered by B.F. Skinner. Read on to learn about Skinner's discoveries and how you may experience reinforcement and punishment in your own life.

B.F. Skinner and Operant Conditioning

Image of B.F. Skinner

The effects of reinforcement and punishment were discovered by B.F. Skinner through his experiments using his operant conditioning chamber. The operant conditioning chamber, also known as the Skinner Box, is a box big enough to contain a laboratory animal, such as a rat or pigeon. The box is equipped with devices that either reinforce or punish the behavior of the animal. Skinner developed the box while he was a graduate student at Harvard in the early 1930s.

Skinner discovered that by using reinforcement and punishment, he could train his animals to perform certain behaviors. He called this type of conditioning operant conditioning, meaning that behavior is learned through reinforcement and punishment. Operant conditioning formed the foundation of Skinner's theory of radical behaviorism and led to him becoming one of the most important psychologists of the 20th century.

Diagram of a Skinner Box


Reinforcement is any reaction to a behavior that encourages the research subject to increase that behavior. There are two types of reinforcement - positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement.

Positive reinforcement is what we might refer to as a reward; it is something desirable that is given to the research subject after it performs the behavior. If you are trying to develop a healthy eating and exercise routine, you may want to reward yourself after a week of meeting your goals by going out with friends or buying a small gift for yourself. Once you have learned that your good behavior will result in this reward, you are more likely to continue the good behavior - this is positive reinforcement.

Negative reinforcement, on the other hand, results when an undesirable thing or action is taken away after a behavior is performed. Imagine you always get cold when you go to a particular movie theater. After a couple of experiences of being uncomfortably cold while watching the latest movie, you may start to bring a sweater with you. By wearing the sweater, the negative element of the cold is removed and you are likely to continue bringing a sweater with you. The absence of the cold reinforces your behavior.

Schedules of Reinforcement

One of Skinner's greatest contributions was discovering that the frequency of reinforcement greatly affects how quickly and how permanently a behavior is reinforced. These frequencies are called schedules of reinforcement. Skinner studied three schedules of reinforcement: continuous, interval and ratio.

In the case of continuous reinforcement, reinforcement is provided after every correct action. It results in rapid learning but may not create a lasting behavior. Interval reinforcement provides reinforcement after a certain amount of time passes, and the amount of time that passes between reinforcements can stay the same (fixed) or change (variable). Ratio reinforcement refers to reinforcement after a certain number of correct responses. The number of correct responses required can also be fixed or variable.

Image of slot machines in a casino

Variable ratio and interval reinforcement schedules have proven particularly interesting in explaining addiction. Gambling, for example, provides a variable ratio reinforcement. When you play a slot machine, there is always a chance you will hit a jackpot, but the number of times you must play it before a jackpot is hit varies and is unknown. You could hit a jackpot on your next try or after 100 tries - you do not know when you will be rewarded for your efforts, but you know that if you continue indefinitely, you will eventually get the reward. Since you would hate to walk away from a machine, just to see the next person walk up and win on his or her first try, there is an incentive to continue to play.

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To understand how variable interval reinforcement works, think about the frequency with which you check your e-mail or phone for new messages. If the interval were fixed, you would know when new messages would arrive. For example, if you knew you would get a message every three hours, then you would likely only check for a message every three hours. However, since the interval between new messages varies, a new message could come at any time, likely causing you to check your email and phone far more frequently than every three hours.

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